Nature’s Path: Going Beneath the Surface

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FALLING CAVE IN JACKSON COUNTY, Alabama, features a 136-foot-deep pit.

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Thanks to a limestone belt that stretches across  northeastern Alabama, northwestern Georgia and southeastern Tennessee, this area boasts one of the heaviest cave concentrations in the United States – and some of the most beautiful subterranean scenery you’ll find anywhere.

by ELIZABETH MANNING

“Misery ahead” isn’t a phrase one likes to hear when going on a weekend excursion outdoors. The expression is a favorite among cavers, though, to describe a particularly difficult passage up ahead.

On this particular Saturday, the seasoned guides who take photographer Laura Monroe and me on our first caving expedition don’t scare us with the saying. In fact, they wait until after we make it out to tell us our route isn’t a beginner course. [s2If !is_user_logged_in()]

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The two caves Monroe and I venture into over the weekend are located on the southern end of an underground limestone belt. Limestone is especially vulnerable to being worn down by acidic water, a phenomenon that results in the plethora of caves in northeastern Alabama, northwestern Georgia and southeastern Tennessee. As rainwater filters through dead leaves and other organic matter, it becomes slightly acidic before travelling underground, where it dissolves the limestone. Subterranean streams and lakes create caves, and water that continues to flow through them carries dissolved minerals that create formations, which include stalactites, stalagmites, columns and draperies.

We begin our caving adventure at Huddle House. According to our guides, any good caving expedition should be precipitated by a good breakfast. I take that advice to heart and order the French toast special…and eat every bite. After a full meal and my usual round of questions for the three men, we hop in the van and head for the first cave.

Visiting a Private Cave
The cave, located in Fort Payne, Ala., is called Steward Spring. Lin Guy, an engineer and one of our guides, discovered the cave in 1967 with Ken Kifer, Andy Thorp and Johnny Rountree. Norman Steward owned the farm where the cave is located and told the group they could explore it. Guy and fellow Fort Payne resident Kenneth Rupil mapped the cave from 1968 to 1974. Rupil owned the land for some time and sold the cave to the Southeastern Cave Conservancy, a not-for-profit organization, in 2008.

The Southeastern Cave Conservancy regularly buys caves in order to preserve and protect them. Another organization, the National Speleological Society, does the same. The entrance to Steward Spring Cave is locked most of the year, but NSS members regularly venture into the cave. Rupil and Guy mapped the cave in increments of 500 feet at a time. Guy is now the Alabama Cave Survey’s cave files director. According to the map the men created, the culmination of the trek is at the cave’s end, which features a 35-foot waterfall.

“That was well worth the trouble getting there,” Guy says of his first journey to the back of the cave.

Monroe and I being rookies, we forget the majority of the gear needed for our trip down under. Between Guy, Rupil and our third guide – geologist Tom Whitehurst – we are outfitted in kneepads, gloves, helmets and headlamps in no time.

The crawl into the cave starts with a journey through what the men call “Compulsory Pool.” A knee-deep stream runs through the front part of Steward Spring Cave. We jump in with a splash and take off for the unknown. The men point out different facets of the cave as we go along. Whitehurst is especially interested in a large calcite crystal formation near the mouth of the cave.

A recurring theme among the experienced cavers I’ve spoken with is the determination for conservation. Rupil and Guy spend much of their time in caves putting back together formations that have been knocked over by vandals. The pair uses epoxy to glue pieces of the formations together. Hundreds of years from now, the glue will be unnoticeable. “If you have the opportunity to fix [the damage], why wouldn’t you do it?” Rupil says when asked why it’s important to make the repairs.

Across Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia, an area called TAG by cavers, there are more than 14,000 discovered caves. As of 2014, there were 4,293 documented caves in Alabama alone, according to Guy. The longest cave in Alabama extends 82,525 feet, and the deepest descends 603 feet.

About 20 minutes into our trek, we come into an open room with several formations. Guy points out some long, vertical markings on one side of the cave. “We haven’t had someone come in to identify them, but the only explanation we can find is a bear clawed the wall of the cave,” he says.

In this room, we meet up with another group of cavers, in the area for an NSS gathering. One member of the group, Fred Bowman, shows us how they used mud to cover the epoxy holding the vandalized formations together, making it look natural. “That took 30 seconds, and you cannot even tell anything ever happened to it,” Bowman says.

I wonder if we can learn from the way these cavers are caring for the vast world underneath us and apply that knowledge above ground.

Not much farther on, we come across our first bat. Identified as a common pipistrelle by Whitehurst, the bat is about the length of a thumb and is awake and watching us, but doesn’t seem too scared. Other animals often seen inside caves range from blind fish to salamanders to crickets. “Because it’s a private cave, I think they just haven’t had enough experience with outsiders to fear us,” Rupil says.

We part ways with the other group about halfway through our course and keep going toward our destination, what Guy calls the “formation room.” The room is a favorite for both Guy and Rupil. Like anything worth experiencing in life, passage into the room requires overcoming a challenge. We have to either climb a 15-foot rock face, without a rope, or weasel ourselves through a hole in the rock that’s only 2 feet in diameter.

The first-timers choose the hole.

“Am I more afraid of heights or small spaces – that’s really the question here,” Monroe says.

“Well, heights can kill you, small spaces won’t,” Guy quips.

Though difficult, we make it into a room like no other we have seen.

The formation room is, by Guy’s calculations, 100 feet wide by 300 feet long. Exhausted and covered in mud, I finally sit back and reflect on the sheer mass around me. As Rupil says when we make it back out, “They’ll make you grateful for green plants.” But the cave is a different kind of beautiful. The deep underground has its own allure. When we stop to turn off our headlamps, it is so dark I cannot see my hand in front of my face, and the quiet of the cave is astounding. Most of the walls and formations are beautiful and untouched – a reminder of how awe-inducing the combination of time and Mother Nature can be. We’re sitting in this room when Guy turns and tells us why he started caving many years ago.

“There’s a fantastic article on caving in the June 1964 issue of National Geographic,” he says. “I remember reading that and having to find a cave.”

He found his first one at age 16. It was in Etowah County, Alabama, and he and several friends christened it “Maryville Cave.”

The journey out goes much as it did on the way in, but rain throughout the afternoon has made the cave muddier and wetter.

“Hey! You’re getting mud on the Washington Monument,” Guy yells.

“Oh, I did, didn’t I?” Rupil says back as he slides down the formation they have named after the famous attraction. The entire day goes like this. For us beginners, the difficult passages are made slightly more enjoyable by the endless banter among our three guides.

A Commercial Cave
The following day, Monroe and I drive to the south side of Chattanooga, Tenn., in Lookout Valley, to go caving at a commercial cave called Raccoon Mountain Caverns. The caverns were discovered in the 1920s by a group of farmers and field hands. The workers discovered the cave after feeling cold air blowing out through cracks in the limestone and cooled off in it while taking breaks from working in the fields, says Patty Perlaky, manager of Raccoon Mountain Caverns.

In 1929, Perlaky says, the farmers called upon Leo Lambert, a well-known local caver, to explore the cave. The cave opened to the public in 1931. The original tour featured only a small portion of the more than 5 ½ miles of explored and mapped passageways the cave now boasts. Additional passageways were discovered in the 1950s, and Raccoon Mountain Caverns is reputed to be the first cave in the country to offer commercial wild-cave tours.

Today, visitors can take a 45-minute walking tour of the developed portion of the cave, which includes designated trails, handrails and electric lights, or explore natural portions of the cave through one of several wild-cave expeditions, which range from one hour to overnight.

With Perlaky as our guide, we take the two-hour Fossil Crawl Expedition and are joined by a family of four from Georgia. Perlaky, a geologist by trade, has been caving for 19 years.
“I worked in uranium mines for seven years,” Perlaky says. “When I came here, the cave needed someone to manage it, so I took over.”

The beginning of the tour runs the same path through the developed portion of the cave as the walking tours. But we soon leave the lighted formations and well-defined, spacious paths for the tight crawls and mud to which we have become accustomed. After Steward Spring Cave, however, Raccoon Mountain Caverns seem like a walk in the park.

There are difficult parts, to be sure. Where the tests of strength and endurance in the private cave usually involved tight spaces, the tests in Raccoon Mountain Caverns are mostly mental. A passage called “the canyon” has our group sidling sideways with our hands placed squarely on the other side of a canyon wall, staring at a 10- to 15-foot drop below us. A climb up a slippery incline requires pulling oneself up via a rope nailed into the cave wall.

Conservation
A point of interest, both for beginners and seasoned cavers, is the wildlife that resides underground.

Michael Ray, secretary and treasurer of the Gadsden, Ala., grotto of the National Speleological Society, says protecting the fragile environment inside caves is one of his biggest goals in caving.

“Every caver you talk to will have a different angle of why what we do is important,” Ray says. “One of mine is the many species of animals that live in the caves and depend on the cave staying relatively untouched and unharmed.”

Besides the bats we encounter, we sight several salamanders. Many species live in this area’s caves, and we see two types: the cave salamander, also known as the spotted-tail salamander, and a smaller black salamander. Cave crickets are abundant as well. The region’s caves are home to several endangered species. Two endangered bat species, the gray bat and the Indiana bat, inhabit caves in the TAG area. Blind cavefish, some species of which are endangered, can be found in the caves as well.

Humans aren’t the only factor affecting cave wildlife. A disease called white-nose syndrome, first documented in New York in the winter of 2006-2007, is devastating entire populations of bats. Named for the white fungus that appears on the muzzle of hibernating bats, the disease has spread to Southeastern and Midwestern states and has killed more than 5.7 million bats in North America, including 80 percent of bats in the Northeast, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Cavers can unwittingly spread the fungus from cave to cave if they aren’t careful. Ray tells us one bat can eat as many as 3,000 insects in a single night. “That’s a natural form of bug spray – no chemicals added,” Ray says.

Insect-suppression services bats provide to U.S. agriculture is valued between $4 billion and $50 billion per year, according to USGS.

Ray also mentions the importance of avid cavers continually looking for new caves and adding them to the survey. Often, landowners and businesses unknowingly build over caves. This causes problems on all sides. The earth could give way beneath the structure, destroying both the building and the fragile cave environment.

“These caves are thousands of years old,” says Jennifer Pinkley, chair of the Southeastern Cave Conservancy’s marketing committee. “To harm any part of these caves is to harm living things
that cannot sustain themselves from even the slightest bit of damage.”

Wildlife is just one of many fascinating things inside caves. On our wild-cave tour at Raccoon Mountain, Perlaky takes the group through a section of the cave known as the fossil crawl. The roof of the cave is covered with small fossils of two different organisms, one called Archimedes and one called a crinoid. Perlaky explains the organisms were both sea creatures, testaments to a time when the area was underwater.

Throughout our Saturday trek through Steward Spring, the men would stop at various spray-painted portions of rock, always with the same sigh and discouraged shake of their heads.

“I want to say to them, ‘Would you treat your house like this?’” Guy says.

Those I spoke to with the National Speleological Society and the Southeastern Cave Conservancy say even the fumes from spray-paint are toxic to the life inside caves.

At the start of our journey through Raccoon Mountain Caverns, Perlaky reminds us of the caver’s motto: “Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints, kill nothing but time.”

In at least one case, however, there is dissension among cavers regarding what constitutes litter. Several times, in both caves,  we pass white dusty spots on the walls and floors. The residue was left from carbide lamps, a type of miner’s lamp used from 1900 to the 1960s.

“If you want to get a huge argument started, bring up carbide-lamp residue at a spelunking gathering,” Perlaky says.

She says cavers are divided over whether the carbide residue is simply litter or if it’s historical litter that should be left in the caves because it tells the story of early exploration.

Safety
Pinkley and Ray are adamant that beginner cavers should keep their caving adventures to commercial caves or guided tours by advanced cavers in private caves. Private caves are open only to those with landowner permission and necessary permits. Ray says the most important reason for keeping beginners out of caves is to protect their safety. “What rookies don’t realize is the cave isn’t just a fun adventure; it can be very dangerous for someone who doesn’t know his way around,” Ray says.

And some activities could saddle you with a fine and criminal record. Breaking into, vandalizing, disturbing or damaging a cave is now a misdemeanor in Alabama, and Georgia and Tennessee have similar laws.

Most importantly, Ray says you should know what you’re doing if you’re going to seek out a cave. “Find your local grotto and go out with the experienced cavers,” Ray said. “Don’t go on your own, and don’t do it just for a thrill.”

To find a local grotto, visit the NSS website, nssio.org. Outdoor-adventure organizations such as One World Adventure Company and Georgia Girl Guides also offer guided trips.

Some tips to remember: always wear protective headgear, consider the possibility of flooding while you’re in the cave, carry a minimum of three light sources, never go alone, make sure someone on the surface knows where you are and remember the cave environment is fragile.

Despite TAG’s large concentration of caves, most of them are located on private property, and many require a permit to visit. For experienced cavers who have the proper permissions and permits, below are some area caves you might want to explore. Beginners can visit these caves as well, but should do so only by contacting a local grotto or outdoor-adventure organization and arranging a trip with experienced cavers. A list of TAG-region caves that are closed or require permission and/or permits is at dogwoodcitygrotto.com/files/closedcavelist.pdf.

Field Guide

Tumbling Rock Cave
Jackson County, Alabama
Owned by the Southeastern Cave Conservancy, this cave was mentioned time and again by local cavers as a must-see for seasoned explorers. The cave’s “Blue Crawl” is a challenging passageway well known to area cavers. Visitors are asked to make a small donation to contribute to the cave’s upkeep. The cave is open on Saturdays and Sundays, and can be visited with prior permission.
More info: Visit scci.org or e-mail the property manager at tumblingrock@scci.org.

Frick’s Cave
Walker County, Georgia
This cave is home to 10,000 endangered gray bats and to the rare Tennessee cave salamander. This cave is only open to visitation by permit from the SCCI. Illegal entry carries a fine of $50,000. SCCI hosts an open house at the cave one day each winter.
More info: E-mail the cave committee at fricks@scci.org.

Blue Spring Cave
White County, Tennessee
More than 33 miles long, Blue Spring Cave is the longest known cave in Tennessee. The cave is one of a few Tennessee caverns where Ice Age jaguar footprints have been discovered. It is the ninth longest cave in the United States and is gated at all entrances. Land-owner permission is required to visit the cave.
More info: Contact Lonnie Carr for permission and access, 931‐761‐2704.

Stephen’s Gap Cave
Jackson County, Alabama
Stephen’s Gap is a 143-foot-deep pit cave that also features a walk-in entrance, making it ideal for both experienced cavers and non-cavers. Cavers can rappel into the pit, while others can walk into the cave and enjoy the beautiful view. Waterfalls often pour into the cave from several sides. Permission is required to visit this cave.
More info: Contact Milton Polsky of the National Speleological Society, 256‐599‐3584.

Sitton’s Cave and Case Cave
Cloudland Canyon State Park, Georgia
Sitton’s Cave is a horizontal cave with less than a mile of passageways offering soda-straw stalactites, cave bacon (sheets of brown and beige mineral deposits that resemble bacon), and is home to bats, salamanders, fish and crayfish. Case Cave is a vertical cave with a 30-foot drop that requires rappelling and ascending skills. In the past, the 3-mile-long cave was damaged and littered with graffiti. The entrance is now blocked to limit the number of visitors. A permit is required to explore the caves, or you can take a tour with Georgia Girl Guides (G3).
More info: georgiagirlguides.com; gastateparks.org/info/193079

Here are some commercial caves in the TAG area that are open to everyone:

Ruby Falls
Chattanooga, Tenn.
Ruby Falls is perhaps the most beginner-friendly of all commercial caves in the area. Partake in a guided tour to see the awe-inspiring, 145-foot waterfall along with interesting rock formations and cave elements along the way.
More info: 423-821-2544;
rubyfalls.com

Cathedral Caverns
Woodville, Ala.
This public cave is located in a state park. The caverns are known for their large entrance and Goliath, a 45-foot-tall column. The caverns offer haunted cave tours in the fall and cater to groups and individuals.
More info: 256-728-8193;
alapark.com/cathedralcaverns

Raccoon Mountain Caverns
Chattanooga, Tenn.
Boasting more than 5 ½ miles of underground caverns and passageways, Raccoon Mountain offers both walking and wild-cave tours. There are eight expedition options, including an overnight tour.
More info: 1-800-823-2267;
raccoonmountain.com

Cave Spring Cave
Cave Spring, Ga.
Cave Spring Cave in northwest Georgia features the well-known “Devil’s Stool” formation. The cave is open daily May through September and by appointment other times.
More info: Ken Landers, 706-777-9944, or the Cave Spring Welcome Center, 706-777-0299;
cityofcavespring.com

Cumberland Caverns
McMinnville, Tenn.
Cumberland Caverns is one of the most extensive cave systems in Tennessee with more than 32 miles of passageways. The public caves offer walking tours, extensive day tours and overnight trips. The caverns are also home to Bluegrass Underground, a monthly music series.
More info: 931-668-4396;
cumberlandcaverns.com

Terms to Know

CAVING: the sport of exploring caves
SPELUNKING: technically, another term for caving, but know serious “cavers” make a distinction. To them, caving is exploring caves with proper safety equipment and precautions, and spelunking involves inexperienced people using inadequate gear. A popular bumper sticker reads: Cavers rescue spelunkers.
KARST: an irregular limestone region with sinkholes, underground streams and caverns
FLOWSTONES: deposits of calcite formed where water flows down the walls or along the floors of a cave
STALACTITE: a pointed piece of rock that hangs down from the roof of a cave
STALAGMITE: a pointed piece of rock that sticks up from the floor of a cave
SODA STRAW: a formation in the shape of a hollow, cylindrical tube
COLUMN: results when a stalactite and stalagmite grow together to make one formation
SPELEOLOGY: scientific study of caves and other karst features
GROTTO: an internal organization of cavers within the National Speleological Society
DEVELOPED CAVE: A cave with designated trails, handrails and permanent lighting
WILD CAVE: An undeveloped cave or undeveloped portions of a cave

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